World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
In World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, Max Brooks provides an oral history of the global conflict against the undead. In the introduction, the narrator explains how this account focuses on the human element rather than just the statistical details of World War Z. The text shifts from the experiences of one survivor to the next.
The history begins in China. Dr. Kwang Jing-shu recalls when he encountered the “Patient Zero,” a child, and the early responses to the child’s illness. The zombie plague spreads across China, and before long human traffickers are explaining in their interviews how they brought the infected to the rest of the world. At first, people do not know what they are dealing with, and they refer to the disease as rabies, and later as “African Rabies.” Israel and South Africa develop strategies for response faster than many other nations, including America. In spite of their military power, the Americans are surprised to discover that many of their technologically sophisticated weapons fail against the zombies’ unique physiology.
Although World War Z is about humanity’s struggle to defeat zombies, I found it difficult to accept the book as a horror novel. Instead, I was reminded of Michael Crichton’s early technothriller, The Andromeda Strain, which provides an account of how a group of scientists respond to a deadly plague. Beyond the similarity of the infection, Brooks also has an enthusiasm for technical details that Crichton might have admired. When Dr. Kwang describes how he tried to restrain Patient Zero, he of course recalls how the “jagged ends of both radius and ulna bones stabbed through his gray flesh.” After, the doctor contacts his colleague at the Institute of Infectious Diseases at Chongqing University; naturally, a footnote helpfully informs us that it is actually the “Institute of Infectious and Parasitic Diseases of the First Affiliated Hospital, Chongqing Medical University.”
The book is full of predictions that invite readers to add details to their own speculative notes on how the next pandemic flu will unravel our society. Some readers will wonder whether we would really flee north to escape the zombies (the zombies freeze, but they reanimate come spring). Regardless of how everyone’s predictions compare, surely we can all agree that while we’ll never be ready for what’s coming the day after tomorrow, we’ll nevertheless adapt.
Zombies are often interpreted as a representation of our mindless consumerism or our reckless violence. Sometimes, I suppose, zombies are just zombies, but it is difficult not to see Brooks’ zombies as a stand-in for a variety of disasters, ranging from hurricanes to pandemic flu, that test our precautions and our values.
World War Z draws our attention to the fragility of the infrastructure and norms that our civilization depends upon. Brooks’ narrator has compiled dozens of interviews to give readers a sense of how the zombie plague might play out, and this strategy allows readers to suspend disbelief. However, the constantly shifting perspective does come at the cost of a thrilling narrative that follows a band of survivors over the course of the war. There is little rising action beyond the sense that in the background the zombie threat is escalating, has climaxed, and is retreating. Still, readers looking for one more way in which our civilization as it is currently structured will end would do well to consider reading Max Brooks’ account of the zombie plague.
It doesn’t seem that long ago that everyone and their grandmother were talking about Max Brooks‘s World War Z. The movie starring Brad Pitt came and went, though other zombie-inspired TV shows such as The Walking Dead and iZombie are still going strong. The recent zombie craze has not yet passed, so it was with some surprise that I sat down to read World War Z and found it was first published back in 2006. Time flies!
Inspired by The Zombie Survival Guide (also by Max Brooks) the unique thing about World War Z is that it’s written not as a story but as a journalist’s compiled records of interviews from those that survived the zombie apocalypse (or World War Z, as it’s become known). All gathered some years after the global conflict, the testimonies stretch from rumours of a pandemic in China to the slow and arduous rebuilding of civilization.
Contributors include everyone from military generals to simple civilians, and each one has a harrowing story of survival against the odds.
As you might expect, the myriad of personal accounts showcase the worst of humanity as well as its moments of heroism and grace, but the book particularly excels in the minutia of a worldwide zombie attack. When we watch B-grade zombie films, we don’t think much about what such an experiences would do to people beyond the whole “grab a weapon and fight for your life” scenario — but Max Brooks’s book explores the military strategies, environmental issues, psychological effects; even the economic upheaval.
Likewise, though plenty of attention is given to the logistics of fighting zombies on a worldwide scale, there are plenty of smaller, more intimate stories that can involve just a single person fighting against the odds. There are stories from America, Japan, Indian, Russia, Finland, Israel, Cuba, and Australia (among many more) in which everyone is united in a singular goal: survive. What’s at stake is not just their lives, but their humanity.
World War Z was a book I appreciated rather than enjoyed. It managed to be depressing and uplifting at the same time, but is most notable for the great deal of thought that went into realizing the hypothetical circumstances and consequences of a real zombie invasion, on both a global and intimate level.
Eyewitness reports from the first truly global war:
“I found ‘Patient Zero’ behind the locked door of an abandoned apartment across town. . . . His wrists and feet were bound with plastic packing twine. Although he’d rubbed off the skin around his bonds, there was no blood. There was also no blood on his other wounds. . . . He was writhing like an animal; a gag muffled his growls. At first the villagers tried to hold me back. They warned me not to touch him, that he was ‘cursed.’ I shrugged them off and reached for my mask and gloves. The boy’s skin was . . . cold and gray . . . I could find neither his heartbeat nor his pulse.” —Dr. Kwang Jingshu, Greater Chongqing, United Federation of China
“‘Shock and Awe’? Perfect name. . . . But what if the enemy can’t be shocked and awed? Not just won’t, but biologically can’t! That’s what happened that day outside New York City, that’s the failure that almost lost us the whole damn war. The fact that we couldn’t shock and awe Zack boomeranged right back in our faces and actually allowed Zack to shock and awe us! They’re not afraid! No matter what we do, no matter how many we kill, they will never, ever be afraid!” —Todd Wainio, former U.S. Army infantryman and veteran of the Battle of Yonkers
“Two hundred million zombies. Who can even visualize that type of number, let alone combat it? . . . For the first time in history, we faced an enemy that was actively waging total war. They had no limits of endurance. They would never negotiate, never surrender. They would fight until the very end because, unlike us, every single one of them, every second of every day, was devoted to consuming all life on Earth.” —General Travis D’Ambrosia, Supreme Allied Commander, Europe
Nice review! I’ve had this on my to-read pile for awhile.
I have almost picked this up so many times. Maybe I will next time.
Great review. I appreciate your comment about zombies standing in for other fears, as well as your note that the documentary style gets in the way of the narrative. However, that, I think, is the reason World War Z works and rises above other zombie fiction–it takes a perspective beyond just fear and looks at real world ramifications of such an outbreak.
@Kat. One benefit of the structure is that you can open up the book pretty much anywhere and just start reading.
@CTGT. Thank you.